The Greek language is rich and poetic, filled with metaphors and expressive dialogue—a characteristic that dates to antiquity: The ancient Spartans were known for their curt, understated wit, and the ancient Athenians were said to have “attic salt” (attic referred to the Ancient Greek region of Attica, where Athens was located, and salt was a metaphor for wit). Today, the modern Greek language still employs sharp, oddly entertaining expressions and phrases—including these idioms you might want to incorporate into daily conversation.
1. Grab an Egg and Shave It (πιάσ’ τ’ αβγό και κούρευ’ το)
How It’s Pronounced: Pias t’avgo kai kourefto
When someone is faced with an impossible task with no clear solutions, the Greeks say “Grab an egg and shave it.” Obviously, eggs are hairless and can’t be shaved, and that’s exactly the point. There’s no escaping your difficult situation—you might as well try shaving an egg.
2. I Write You on My Old Shoes (Σε γράφω στα παλιά μου τα παπούτσια)
How It’s Pronounced: Se grafo sta palia mou ta papoutsia
It’s said that in the days of the Babylonians, when the king gave a pair of old shoes to a lord with that lord’s name inscribed on the bottom, the message was unmistakable—the lord was done for, replaced, canceled. The custom passed from the Babylonians to the Byzantines and still makes up part of the Greek lexicon today. If a Greek person tells you they have written someone’s name on the bottom of their shoes, it means they don’t care about them anymore and they will be ignored from here on out.
3. Your Eyes Fourteen (Τα μάτια σου δεκατέσσερα)
How It’s Pronounced: Ta matia sou dekatessera
When their kids leave the house, Greek parents will often tell them, “Your eyes fourteen”—the idea being that if you look at situations with 14 eyes instead of two, thus using all of your senses, you might be able to avoid danger.
4. Slowly, the Cabbage (σιγά τα λάχανα)
How It’s Pronounced: Siga ta lahana
Greeks are quick to use the sarcastic phrase “slowly, the cabbages” when someone is making a big deal out of something unimportant. The expression is said to have originated during the Greek War of Independence, when the tax collectors surprisingly accepted humble cabbages as tithe payments. Today, using the expression indicates that someone is giving excessive importance to something that has no value.
5. I Ate a Door (έφαγα πόρτα)
How It’s Pronounced: Efaga porta
The Greek expression “I ate a door” is a metaphor for being rejected. If you’re turned down for a job or denied entry to a popular club, one might say a door was slammed in your face—or in other words, “you ate a door.” The phrase is commonly used to describe getting passed over for something that was important to you.
6. Should I Sniff My Nails? (να μυρίσω τα νύχια μου)
How It’s Pronounced: Na miriso ta nichia mou
When the Greeks are asked to predict something, they might reply with, “Should I sniff my nails?”—a quick retort when someone doesn’t know the answer to a question. It has been suggested by some that the phrase is linked to the Ancient Greek oracles, who used laurel leaves and their oil for divination purposes.
7. Sit On Your Eggs (κάτσε στ'αβγά σο)
How It’s Pronounced: Kátse st avgá so
A Greek person says “sit on your eggs” as a warning to someone who is involved in something that doesn’t concern them. In other words, mind your own business and look after your eggs like a well-behaved hen.
8. Pops a Donkey (σκάει γάιδαρο)
How It’s Pronounced: Skaei gaidaro
Donkeys are said to be patient animals that can put up with a lot, so when the Greeks say that someone “pops a donkey,” it means that they’re stubborn to the extreme—so much so that they could break even the most patient of donkeys.
9. Black and Spidery (μαύρος κι άραχνος)
How It’s Pronounced: Mavros ki araxnos
The Greeks have many dramatic expressions—so, of course, when they’re referring to something dark and unpleasant, they would say “it’s black and spidery.” This phrase can be used in reference to a sad day, someone’s bad attitude, a tragic situation, or a negative feeling surrounding something.
10. Acts Like a Duck (κάνει την πάπια)
How It’s Pronounced: Kanei tin papia
In the Greek language, when someone “acts like a duck,” it means they’re pretending to be innocent when they’re guilty, insist they know nothing of a situation when they’re actually fully aware of it, or just neglect to mention a problem to avoid any consequences. According to a popular folk etymology (of dubious validity), the expression comes from the Byzantine era and refers to the person in charge of palace buildings (known as a Papias). The person who held this position was considered untrustworthy and allegedly spied, lied, and accused others while pretending he was innocent. According to some versions of the story, as the years went on, pronunciation shifted, turning the Byzantine Papias (which etymologically is related to the word for father) into the modern Greek for duck. Today, if someone is acting ignorant and pretending not to know something, they will be called out as a “duck.”
11. You Drown Yourself in a Teaspoon of Water (πνίγεσαι σε μια κουταλιά νερό)
How It’s Pronounced: Pnígese se mia koutalia nero
This Greek proverb is often used to describe someone who is overly dramatic and who makes a big deal out of small concerns. When someone thinks a problem is greater than it is and is greatly stressed by it, they feel like they’re drowning in a mere teaspoon of water.